Monday, 28 September 2015

Austrian Adventure - Part 2

Before we go on, quickly back to that Karlsruhe sound and light show.  Follow this link to see an extract.  Well worth a watch - it really was spectacular.

You will recall that I'd arrived in Innsbruck in a pretty good mood, thanks entirely to spectacular mountain scenery and undaunted by grumpy train guards and overhead line problems.

I checked in to the Ramada Tivoli Hotel and was given the key to one of the nicest hotel rooms I've stayed in for a long time.  Okay, it wasn't a suite or anything but as normal rooms go the furniture and décor was modern, comfortable and incredibly stylish.  Being at the end of the corridor, I had windows on two sides of the room, with mountain views on both sides.  I appreciate Ramada can't take the credit for the mountains being there, but they certainly don't lose any points for it!

On the south side, my room faced the Olympiaworld sports complex across the street - built for the 1964 Winter Olympics which seems roughly to have been when the history of Innsbruck started.  Directly opposite was the main Olympic Hall and ice hockey stadium.  Years ago I used to watch a lot of ice hockey, mainly at Telford (where else!) but the highlight was to see a game in Vancouver.  So as if all the other good stuff wasn't enough, they were training and I could see much of the action from my room because of the way the windows were aligned.  If they had carried on training I might never have made it out of the room!

To cap the view, peeping up above the roof of the Olympic Hall was the top of the Bergisel ski jump, with its incredibly distinctive architecture.

I did eventually manage to prise myself from my room and headed down in search of food.  Normally I get very bored of people putting pictures of their food on social media, but one of the best things about rules is knowing when you can break them, so here we go.  I don't really know whether Wiener Schnitzel are ever eaten by any real Austrians - especially outside Vienna - or whether they're just invented to keep tourists like me happy, but at the end of what had turned out to be a pretty fantastic day, it's hard to get much better than this.


The hotel is clearly a major base for touring coach parties and there were four coach parties in residence this night.  From my seat in the restaurant I had a great view of the coaches trying not to crash into each other while parking up in a fairly compact space, but it turns out that my natural human instinct to don a hi-vis jacket and rush out and start waving my arms around was not required and they coped perfectly fine without me.  I was tempted to go and do the run out for the following morning all the same, but decided against it.

I did however have a good read of all the itineraries that all the various tour groups had stuck around the lift doors to remind their clients what they were supposed to be doing the following day.  If nothing else, it gave me a good idea what time to avoid going for breakfast!

The most demanding itinerary appeared to be the Cosmos group, which I later learned was attempting to cover the whole of Europe in about three days.  I suppose when you're in America looking at a map, it all looks eminently doable.  The tour leaders were Alex and Maurizio - a camp sounding double act if ever there was one.  From the itinerary it was clear that Maurizio was the most dispensible member of the duo.  Whether that was likely to be from exhaustion or some other unknown cause wasn't clear.


By chance, four members of the group joined me in the lift as they were on their way to the 11th floor for their dinner.  I have no wish to indulge in gratuitous stereotyping at this point, especially as they were thoroughly nice people, and indeed we had a nice little chat once they had got over the strange notion that somebody in mainland Europe not in their group could speak English.  But five of us were a snug fit in what was quite a big lift.  To their credit, they did all join in the banter about whether we thought the lift was equal to the task of taking them all the way to the top floor.  We figured it had a better chance once I bailed out at floor five.

The following morning dawned with even better views of the surrounding mountains so I was soon out exploring.  In the darkness of my arrival I hadn't realised that the hotel itself was among the more unusual architecture around.


I'm sure there's a reason why it was built like this - it didn't resemble any of the other surrounding buildings - and it isn't simply the case that the architect's plans slipped while they were ordering the parts - but credit for originality.

A daytime view of the Olympic Hall showed it to be a classic of 1960s concrete, but it has aged quite well and still looks imposing and important today.


The subway linking the two was festooned with attractive and highly creative graffiti.  I can see arguments both ways on the merits of this kind of art, especially when there is private property involved, but it is difficult to see what harm is done by the creative decoration of a concrete municipal subway wall.  Especially when the artists clearly care deeply about what they are doing...


Just out of shot was a grumpy municipal notice saying that this wall was not to be painted on.  I know where I would pledge my allegiance in this case.

Of course the history of Innsbruck didn't start in 1964 at all, and after a healthy stroll into town I was able to take in the beautiful old town.  As indeed were several hundred tourists but somehow I managed to miss them all in this shot.  Popular place, and rightly so.


My enthusiasm for conventional sightseeing can be measured in minutes, and after roughly ten of those I wanted to try some transport.  I needed a day ticket for the municipal operator IVB and was able to obtain one from some of the cutest, most compact on-street ticket machines I've ever seen.  I'm not quite sure how I managed not to take a photo of one so you'll have to take my word for it, but they really were very nicely designed so as to offer a great range of tickets without taking up several metres of pavement.

However, for my first trip of the day I ignored the IVB network and jumped aboard the Hungerburgbahn.  This is the first in a linked series of funicular railways and cable cars that leads up into the Nordkette, the range of mountains immediately to the north of the city centre.

The Hungerburgbahn is a very modern style of funicular railway and climbs around three hundred metres (that's a thousand feet for the uncultured) above the city in about ten minutes.  The architecture is spectacular.  Initially the route starts in tunnel beneath the city centre, then emerges on to a spectacular bridge above the River Inn before diving down again then starting the precipitous climb to the upper station.

At this point, the views of the city become absolutely spectacular.


Further ascent is then possible with a series of cable cars, ultimately leading to a summit station 1700 metres (over 5000 feet) above the city, and I really wanted to do it.  But I was limited for time with a mid-afternoon flight back to the UK and I wanted at least one more trip somewhere, so instead I decided to transfer to the bus - the Hungerburgbahn station is also the terminus of city route J - and enjoy the descent back into the city by road.

This was a combination that had been recommended to me, and a fascinating excursion it turned out to be.  The route of the J was equally as spectacular as the funicular railway in some cases, and involves hairpin bends and tight village roads requiring some skilful driving.  But the route is traversed every ten minutes by standard issue twelve metre Citaros.  It has gone right to the top of my 'bucket list' of bus routes I want to drive!

Back in Innsbruck city centre, I was hoping that I might have time for a quick jaunt to the Italian border at Brennero, which would have allowed me to enjoy the railway up to the Brenner Pass.  But while there was a train just about to go, there would not be one to get me back in time for my flight, so that is now on the list for next time.

I had also been recommended to try the Stubaitalbahn, an eleven mile long narrow gauge tramway heading up into the valley below the Stubai Glacier.  But with a journey time of over an hour each way, time again was against me.

Arriving the previous evening, I had noticed what appeared to be a railway line cut into the side of the mountains high above the valley to the west of Innsbruck, and deduced that this was the line to Seefeld, Scharnitz and Garmisch Partenkirchen.  Having seen the mountains below the night before, I decided it was time to see the valley from above, and with a journey time of 35 minutes each way to Seefeld I just about had time.

For the plan to really work, it relied on me being able to make a two minute connection at Seefeld to get a train back the other way, but I inferred from the timetable that it must be a passing loop on a single track railway, so I figured there was a good chance it would work.  If it didn't, it wouldn't be a disaster to have to wait half an hour for the next one back, but would have made things slightly tighter than I wanted.

Very sensibly, and in a way that the UK has singularly failed to grasp effectively, but may be about to (hopefully voluntarily but I worry that it could equally possibly happen in the same way that turkeys sometimes vote for Christmas) transport in the Germanic countries generally works on the basis of common tariffs that cover all modes of transport within the selected zone(s).  When I asked for a return to Seefeld on the ticket machine, what I actually got was a day ticket covering the zones between the two, and it would have been nice to do something more creative than simply going out and back on the train but with limited time I didn't really have much choice.

The train was standard issue ÖBB urban stock and the route is numbered as part of the Innsbruck S-Bahn network.  The train was clean and comfortable but showing signs of needing some TLC - this was fairly typical of the seats I observed:


The line out of Innsbruck is indeed spectacular, swinging to the north of the main line a mile or two from the city centre before starting the climb up the north face of the valley.  I was delighted to get a bird's eye view of the airport...


...but things got really spectacular as we climbed further away from the city.


Of course, while I sat there turning into a dribbling mess of excitement at the unfolding panorama, the other customers were paying no attention at all.  After all, I wasn't on a premium tourist railway, but on a local suburban train barely twenty minutes from the centre of one of the country's main cities.  All around me were schoolchildren, shoppers and business people just going about their every day business.  They see this every day of their lives.  I'd love to know where they go for thrills, but this was the day that I learned the meaning of the word "jealousy"!

With a half hourly frequency in both directions, we were due to pass another train every fifteen minutes or so, and sure enough on each occasion the opposing train presented itself at the passing loop at exactly the same moment as we did so that we could proceed after only a very brief station stop.  Then, just as I was admiring the skill that must be involved in keeping this going all day, every day, another passing loop appeared and we passed a freight train, somehow slotted in between all the passenger movements.  To work a single line with this intensity requires an operating discipline that would be the envy of many other countries.

I began to worry whether I really would have enough time to double back at Seefeld, especially if I had to cross to a different platform, but in the end the southbound train was advertised with a one minute delay.  This gave me time to pop my head out of the station, confirm that it was indeed the manufactured skiing town that I remembered from a 1980's skiing holiday (where I learned that mountains are best viewed from anywhere other than on a pair of skies) and then rush back to the platform.

The return train was billed an InterRegio Express rather than S-Bahn, so I was looking forward to something a little grander in the way of rolling stock, but it turned out to be identical.  The IRE designation appears simply to refer to the fact that otherwise standard suburban trains cross the German border to Garmisch-Partenkirchen every two hours.

Due to the closure of the main German - Austrian rail border crossing point at Kufstein, this train offered a more interesting mix of passengers, with several luggage-laden tourists having clearly been sent this way rather than via the normal express routes.  While sharing my awe at the scenery, they appeared to be completely bamboozled by the unexpected change to their itinerary.  Having fallen into my usual trap of "person who looks like I know what I'm doing", one of them asked me a question and before I knew it I was well and truly making my contribution to the Innsbruck Tourist Board (if such a thing exists), dispensing advice on onward travel and general city orientation to a gradually growing audience.

Back at the main station I had to leave them to fend for themselves, as it was airport time.  Taking advantage of a peculiarity of the city centre route network, I was able to catch a tram for three stops, just for the sake of doing it, then transfer back to a Citaro artic on route F to the Airport that had left the central station just before the tram.  Well I thought it was fun anyway.

The driver wasn't having as much fun however.  Having joined the bus, we did a driver change and even though the new driver had barely got in the cab, he was immediately set upon by two English tourists demanding singles to the airport and proferring a high denomination Euro note.  To make matters worse, his ticket machine didn't want to play and the touch screen clearly was not responding to touch.

Keen to keep us on schedule, he set off through crowded city centre roads, with the two tourists hanging on for grim death and the driver paying more attention to coaxing a response from the ticket machine than the small matter of the road ahead.  After three or four minutes he was finally able to dispense the tickets and after a further small eternity while he amassed enough change, the whole bus was able to breathe a sigh of relief as he was finally able to take in the view through the windscreen, allowing us to stop almost mowing down pedestrians and driving through red lights.

It's one of those tricky situations where of course he should look after the customer, and unfamiliar users presenting high value notes are par for the course on an airport service.  But equally, the two customers did as much as they could to make his life as difficult as possible and a little more sensitivity really would not have gone amiss.

Anyway, we made it safely to the airport, and a departure lounge with views across the apron which must rank as some of the best departure lounge views anywhere in Europe.



This of course is the view back towards the railway line that I used earlier in the day towards Seefeld, and I find myself in awe of how anyone managed to construct a railway line through that kind of terrain.

You will gather from all the above that I have truly fallen in love with Innsbruck, and I can't wait to go back and explore more of the city and indeed the rest of the country.

From a transport perspective, the magic of Innsbruck is all about the scenery and topography.  It's not somewhere to go if you like myriad different liveries.  The railways are mostly standard-issue ÖBB stock, the buses heading out of town are all Postbus and the IVB buses and trams are either all silver or all red (I surmise that the red is replacing the silver, as it appears on all the newer stock).  In common with many European municipals, IVB lacks flair, but appears to do a decent job with mostly a high level of professionalism and the vehicles are superbly presented.  Beyond that, there is not much variety, but then the stuff worth looking at is all outside the windows!



Easyjet soon arrived to take me back to the UK, but not before one of the most convoluted boarding processes I've ever seen on a low-cost flight.  The plane parked within touching distance of the terminal - it would have been a shorter walk than I've experienced at many UK airports.  But we were all required to board buses.  After arriving passengers were disembarked, priority boarders were loaded on to one bus which set off and then drove round three sides of a square to park on the tarmac, adjacent to the steps leading to the aeroplane but barely a bus length from the back of the second bus, which was by now loading us non-priority passengers

Eventually we had a full bus, which didn't move but instead sat there with us staring at the priority passengers sitting in the other bus, and in the other direction the non-priority customers who wouldn't fit on our bus, staring at us from the terminal building.  Presently, the priority passengers were allowed to board, and their bus - now empty - pulled forward to form a line behind our bus, probably not having engaged second gear to do so.

But there wasn't quite room so we pulled forward half a bus length, and then sat there and waited while they filled the second bus with the remaining non-priority passengers.  Both buses then drove round three sides of the same square in convoy, dropping us off at the bottom of the steps less than a minute after setting off, but fully twenty minutes after we had got on our bus.

This all meant that all us non-priority passengers - around 180 of us I counted - arrived at the aircraft at exactly the same time, meaning that boarding then took nearly a further ten minutes.  All of which meant that we missed our air traffic control slot, and had to sit going nowhere for twenty minutes waiting for another slot to become free.

About the only endearing part of the whole process was the fact that the airport appears only to have one bus of its own, so the second bus on airside duties was a standard-issue IVB Citaro artic, complete with ticket machine.

The flight itself was mostly uneventful, although some lively cloud formations as we crossed the English coast caused some very exciting turbulence and a very roundabout tour of Kent before we landed at Gatwick.

It seemed to take nearly as long to walk through Gatwick Airport as it did to fly from Austria.  The walk from the Easyjet stands to Border Control is no small feat, enlivened only by going over the rather funky footbridge over one of the taxiways, and when we arrived at Border Control we joined a twenty minute queue.  Now yes, I know, national security etc, but what a really rude and unhospitable way to welcome people to our country.  Makes me ashamed, frankly.  Twenty minutes just to get to show a passport.

When I finally made it to the front, my passport wouldn't open the electronic gate, so I was directed to a dour-looking bloke sitting in a booth to one side, who held my passport under his own scanner for an eternity before cracking a grin and declaring "dodgy chip, mate" with all the barely concealed glee that one normally only sees from a bus fitter when declaring that a repair is "not a five minute job, mate".  Nothing better than spoiling someone's day.  It's a brand new passport and it worked fine in Frankfurt.  But I decided not to pick a fight and in turn, they kindly let me in.

The Border Force didn't have the monopoly on getting one over on the customer though.  The final leg of my trip was entrusted to National Express, to take me back to Heathrow to reunite myself with my car.  Nice coach, to be fair, calm ambience, plug sockets, wifi and a lovely relaxing early evening journey round a surprisingly empty M25, with soothing music in my headphones and plenty of room to spread out.   I'd do it again in a heartbeat.


The only fly in the ointment was the driver, who had clearly graduated with an honours degree in self-importance from that secret school that only a minority of coach drivers seem to find.  Communication to customers took the form of commands and instructions, not requests.  The customer boarding before me - clearly foreign and bewildered - was given a stern lecture for some luggage irregularity that I failed to catch.  When a customer had the temerity to attempt to sit on the nearside front seat, I think everyone in the coach station heard the battle cry, "can't sit there love".  No attempt to explain, or ask politely.  Do as you're told.

A minor issue in the grand scheme of things, and certainly in the context of a brilliant couple of days, in which I felt totally comfortable and at home in a beautiful city that I can't wait to revisit.  I have always had an ambition to live and work in Continental Europe.  Perhaps I should persuade my bosses that Wellglade needs a European office!

After such a relaxing coach trip, and with the time barely 8pm, I decided that of course it was far too early to drive home, so I forced myself to end my trip with another dinner overlooking the northern runway at Heathrow.

With at least three weeks until my next European jaunt (anyone for Busworld?) I'd better think of something more serious to write about next, but in the meantime it would be churlish of me to finish without acknowledging the help of Helmuth Schröttner of Reading Buses fame, who is a native of Innsbruck and provided me with a number of key suggestions about how best to use my time there.  I owe him several pints!

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